Friday, August 29, 2014

So You Want to Be A Writer?

I'm going to start of this post by making the assumption that most of you reading these words found your way here because you think you want to be writers. I am here to tell you that unfortunately, most of you don't.

And the Internet howled in outrage.
Now I'm sure there's some of you who are here in an earnest search for information. Maybe you're in high school or college, and you're starting to seriously consider a career as an author of some variety. Or maybe you've completed the hard work of getting your manuscript from your head and onto the page, and now you're looking for the next step.

To all of these people, this blog entry is not for you.

So Who Is It For?

This blog entry is for all of those people who think they want to be writers. For people who will criticize published books despite not working on a manuscript of their own. For those who talk about how "writer's block" stops them from getting the job done, or who make excuses about not having the time to write. This entry is for all those who say "one day," or "I'd like to, but," when they talk about writing. It's for all of those who want talk about how magnificent their mind palaces are going to be to those of us sweating and straining to lay the foundations of very real careers.

Stop. Just stop.

You don't actually want to be writers. You think you do, but you don't. Let me tell you why.

Lost In Translation

In all fairness, this isn't entirely your fault.

Have you noticed how English isn't really good at being specific when it comes to the exact meanings of certain words? You need look no further than the word love to see the problems with English. When you say you love someone, how do you mean it? Are we talking a deep, emotional, spiritual, and sexual connection like you'd have with a life partner? Do you instead mean the kind of platonic love you'd have for a sibling, or the sort of love that can only be found in deep, life-spanning friendships? Do you mean the kind of love you reserve for children, or the kind you keep especially for cupcakes?

I love you too, cupcake.
We experience the same problem as English-speakers when we say the word want. As pointed out in this article by Cracked, two people can use this same word in amazingly different ways. When some people say they want something it's a statement of purpose. For instance, someone might say "I want to get my bachelor's degree in the next four years," and mean that they're signing up for classes, buying textbooks, and burning all of the oil they've got, midnight and otherwise to accomplish this goal. Other people will use the word want as a kind of blanket statement that can be translated as "wouldn't it be nice if...?" These are people who want things like world peace, or to get six pack abs by sitting on the couch, or to someday work in the computer field without getting the training or degrees necessary.

Some people who say they want to be writers fall into the former category. Most fall into the latter.

How Can You Tell?

As I said in this entry right here, there's only one kind of writer; the kind who writes. If you don't write, then you're not a writer, plain and simple. Before you start arguing, check this list of signs against your behavior. Do you:

- Make excuses for why your book isn't being worked on?
- Have no idea how to publish your book once it's done?
- Constantly find other things to do besides write?
- Talk about how great your book is, but never actually put words on the page?
- Trust that the book will take care of itself instead of attending talks, reading articles, and going to conventions that could help you network and find a home for your book?

These are just a few of the signs that your want doesn't have the razor edge it's going to need if you're going to be a writer. If you were serious, if you wanted to write a novel, or a short story, or an anthology, or a textbook, or whatever your project is you would be constantly planning it. You would be checking the guidelines from various publishers to see who would accept your work, and reading up on self publishing to see if it's a viable option. You would be devouring books on technique and voice along with guides to the industry. You would be looking for talks by established writers, and spending a little bit of time every day on your manuscript. Maybe it's a few hundred words, or whatever you can get done in an hour, but you would do it day in, day out, without fail.

Why? Because you want a book with your name on the cover and your picture on the book jacket, that's why.

Change Today. Tomorrow is Too Late

There's nothing to say that you can't turn your blanket statement into a statement of purpose. You could finish reading this entry and then go back through my archive on writing technique, reviewing good and bad tropes, and learning about how to become a better writer. You could seek out guidelines from companies like Tor or Baen Books, and take a gander at what you're going to have to accomplish. You could spend an hour with a notebook and a pen, drawing out your plan for your project. You could even open up a fresh word document and write the first page or two.

But you have to keep going.

Writing a book isn't about pushing one, huge stone down a mountain. It's about pushing a bunch of smaller ones down that incline every day. It's about putting in the effort to create the avalanche until the habit is so thoroughly ingrained that you can't stop. This is what it takes to be a writer. Unfortunately it means you're going to have to find that time somewhere. It might mean sacrificing your TV or video game habit, or watching fewer movies on the weekend. It might mean not going out for drinks after work, or switching to a 1-hour workout instead of a 3-hour bike ride.

If you don't do it though, nothing's ever going to change.

As always thanks for stopping in at The Literary Mercenary. If you'd like to get my updates then follow me on Facebook or Tumblr, or just put your email address into the box on your right hand side. If you want to help out then click the shiny new "Like This" button on your upper right hand side, make a donation by clicking on the "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son," button on the right, or drop by my Patreon page and become a patron today!

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Disposable Woman: A Trope That Really Needs to Go

Motivation is one of the central parts of a story; if your main character doesn't have any motivation then chances are good you can't really call him a hero. If you're having trouble lighting a fire under your lead's nether regions though, relax, there's a simple way to get it done.

All you have to do is kill a woman who's important to him.

Instructions are on page 24.
A wife, a daughter, a mother (all three if you're time-traveling in Alabama); it doesn't matter who she is as long as she's important to your main character. Her death will act as the springboard for whatever it is your main character needs to do in your story. Maybe that thing is to put on a cape and cowl to prowl the streets at night, maybe it's asking the woman he loves to marry him, or maybe it's throwing his badge out the window to go on a blood-soaked vengeance spree, but whatever it is all you need to do is drill that special lady in your lead's life.

Or is it?

The Disposable Woman

I swear I'll avenge you... you... shit, I knew your name a minute ago...
This trope, appropriately labeled the Disposable Woman (here's the page for it at TV Tropes), is perhaps one of the greatest examples of lazy writing that no one questions. We see it in video games like Final Fantasy VII (it's Vincent Valentine's entire back story), and in comic books like The Punisher and Batman. It's a favorite in action movies like Mel Gibson's Edge of Darkness, and  it's the entire point of the first Deathwish film. The female character in question is not a vibrant, living part of the story that our audience gets to fall in love with. She isn't someone whose death truly affects us. She's typically just a ghostly, haunting reason for whatever is going on; she exists solely as the catalyst for our hero's (and it's always the hero, never the heroine) actions. If we get to see her at all it will be for a brief few flashes until something awful happens to her.

What's The Problem?

To explain what's wrong with this trope I'll give you an example of how it's done right. In Stephen King's novel Bag of Bones we meet up with author Mike Noonan. Mike's life changes dramatically when his wife Jo dies (but she maintains a ghostly presence throughout the book, making her a Lost Lenore rather than a Disposable Woman. In short, we actually see how and why she's important to Mike). Mike goes up to his summer home where he meets and falls in love with a much younger woman named Mattie Devore. This embroils him in her custody battle for her daughter Kyla against her father-in-law. For more than half the book we learn about Mike, Jo, and his new lady love, before a man with a gun shows up and kills Mattie. In a piece of meta-criticism Mike remembers how when he would get stuck writing a story he'd just have a man with a gun come in and kill the woman, something he's horrified by with his lover's blood all over his hands.

That right there is why this trope is such a problem; the shallowness of how it's typically used.

In Bag of Bones we're invested in both of the women that Mike loses. His wife is more than just a convenient reason for him to get out of town, and his new lover's death is something that rocks Mike and the audience to their bones. They're both given depth, and a continued presence in the story. In short the author worked to be dynamic, rather than just relying on a trope crutch to prop up the narrative.

Why Does It Matter?

On a professional level the Disposable Woman is lazy. Just as, if not more lazy, then throwing in a rape scene just to add drama or to spackle over a plot point to your story (more on that here). It's quick shorthand for a motivation that readers have seen a hundred times, and it absolves the writer of doing the hard work of pulling the reader in. For a recent example look at the character of Drax the Destroyer from the film Guardians of the Galaxy. He's a hulking brute who's murdered hundreds of people trying to get to the man who killed his wife and child... but should we feel for him? Is a man (using the term loosely) capable of such wanton brutality someone who was ever a good father? A good husband? Or was he always like this, and the death of his family simply gave him the excuse? We don't know; we're just supposed to take that tragedy at face value and accept that it made Drax who he is now.

Secondly using the Disposable Woman is sending a message to readers. A message that as writers we should really, truly consider before we put it down on paper.

Don't be that guy.
Stories carry messages. If your story is about a modern day knight with a machine gun off to slay the dragon because it kidnapped a princess, then that sends a message. It tells male readers that violence is an acceptable solution to problems, it tells female readers that they shouldn't struggle when taken captive, and it tells dragons they're horribly evil fucks who deserve to be shot.

The problem with the Disposable Woman is that she sends a message to women just as surely as Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty does. First off, it tells women that the only role they can have to motivate a story is to die, and that's not the way anyone wants to be represented. Secondly it tends to show women that women only have importance when they're connected to men; mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, and girlfriends. Even if there are other female characters in the story that stigma is going to be sitting over the hero's motivation.

That is not to say that you can't use the Disposable Woman in your story. The next time that setup occurs to you though, ask yourself if that's the only way. Does your FBI agent's wife have to be murdered before he starts playing hardball with the mafia? Instead, why not have her leave him because he's too dedicated to the case? Why not have him driven half-crazy because he keeps seeing men he knows are guilty go free? Why not give him a particular mad-on against the crime that a particular organization is committing and getting away with?

There's always multiple sources of motivation. If you sidestep the neat and easy way to set up a story you're likely to discover more about your characters, and to create a richer story than you might otherwise have written.

As always thanks for dropping by The Literary Mercenary. Follow me by putting your email in the box on your right hand side, or by going to my Facebook or Tumblr. If you'd like to keep me, and this blog, going then check out my Literary Mercenary gear by clicking the link above, buy a book, make a one time donation by clicking the "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son" button on the right hand side, or by dropping by my Patreon page and becoming a patron today!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

More Things You Should Never Say to An Author

Back when my blog was still getting its sea legs I wrote a post titled Things You Should Never Say To An Author. In my naivete I thought that the seven issues I'd experienced at that point were the major players when it came to awkward conversations authors shared with people outside their professional circles.

I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

And I made Jesus cry.
I was so wrong in fact that this week I've decided to create a follow-up public service announcement for those who want to try and reach out to authors as a whole. Whether you're at a cocktail party, a signing event, or wandering the halls at a convention remember that when opening a conversation there are certain things you should avoid saying so as not to get stabbed in the neck with a half-used Bic.

You Should Write A Book About Me

The only notable thing about your life will be its end if you don't stop talking.
I have personally heard this one a dozen times now, one of which came from a total stranger who was cutting my hair (hence why I didn't say anything at the time). Apparently there is such a strong desire in people to believe that their lives have been so unique, and so special, that there are gads of folks who feel a professional storyteller should dedicate 60,000+ words of text to sharing their stories with the world.

I hate to break it to you, but your life really is not all that interesting.

Every time I've heard this statement it's proceeded by some variation of the phrase, "I've seen some shit." After that they blur together. Abusive relationships, drugs and drinking, unexpected children, a string of horrible jobs, assault and possibly manslaughter, all culminating in a normal, boring, pedestrian life. Unfortunately, that is the story of being an adult. It's an unfortunate truth, but unless someone has gone through a truly unique or amazing experience ("I used to run all the guns on the East Coast for a Colombian cartel," or "I flew to Ghana and waged a guerrilla war against an occupying force of mercenaries to free the local tribes people") we don't care. We might copy an irritating verbal tic you have, or make a reference to someone who shares way too much information just because they wanted to dominate the conversation, but no, we are not going to make you a bestselling star.

That's Really Cool... Here's a Copy of My Book

I'll cherish it always.
We all know that one person who, no matter what you're talking about, tries to make the conversation about themselves. Not only do they refocus attention on themselves, but they do it in a way that Kanye West would have thought was classless and rude. There's a version of those people out there in the form of the writer who ambushes professional authors and shoves their own "work" into that professional's hands.

This happened to me once, and I was confused for the rest of the day. My short story "Relic of the Red Planet" had been selected to appear in the Alliteration Ink anthology Sidekicks (still available right here if you want to take a look), and I'd arranged a signing event at my local library. As any unknown author can tell you book signings, even in small towns, don't really draw huge crowds if no one knows who you are. So I waited in a quiet room to see who would show up, and I got two visitors. The first was a guy who was just curious, and the second was an older woman. She introduced herself, said hello, bought a copy of my book, and then promptly took out another book and shoved it into my hands. Then she scuttled off.

I tried to read the book. It was awful, bordering on the nonsensical. Assembled at Create Space it was very clear the author had no grasp of story, cohesion, character development, or possibly a Euclidian reality. I thought this was a really unique experience, but it apparently happens all the time. As soon as people find out you're an author they immediately want to send you their Lord of the Rings slash fic, or pawn off a copy of a self-published book that's sold two copies to their best friends in Japan but which no one else has ever heard of. You could be self-published, the latest addition to an indie house, or the star at Tor; people will still grab your lapels and talk about their projects as if you somehow owed them your time and give-a-shit.

What's happening here is easy to explain; these individuals want validation from someone they view as "making it," and in some cases they're hoping for that lucky break where we demand that they talk to our agents post-haste. That isn't going to happen. We love to talk books and stories; what we do not like is total strangers coming up to us and insisting that we'll love their stories. If we did that to you it would piss you off royally. All we ask is the same courtesy.

You Should Really Write Young Adult Books

What we picture doing to you when you open this conversation.
I've had this conversation with dozens of people, and while you can switch out the variables the irritation remains the same. Whatever genre it is you're working in people will always suggest you work in a different one. If you write horror they'll suggest you tone it back to write young adult fiction. If you write YA fiction they'll suggest you get in on that smut revolution and write erotica. If you write science fiction they'll tell you to try writing some of that dystopia stuff that's selling so well.

It's not that we're so stubborn we will only ever write one kind of story (in most cases). If you were an industry insider who had numbers to back up which genres were making more money then as authors we might nod and consider your words. What average people who think they have the inside track to fiction don't know is that we have put a lot of time into building a brand. We're catering to a particular fan base, and a total shift in our stories will lead to a cut in our sales. Many times we've spent years working to fit into a given area, and that's what people know us for writing. What well-meaning advice providers are doing is telling us to abandon that effort to try something totally different, based on nothing more than their own opinions. Sometimes it's also based on a short program they caught on the news, but most of the time even that is lacking.

If you wonder why we're not ever-so-grateful for your insight, imagine us coming to where you work and saying, "I know being a manager is rough, but have you considered becoming a secretary? I hear there's a lot of potential in that field."

I've Always Wanted to Write a Book

Sure you have, Buttercup.
This statement gets its own separate category because it's different from the writers who try to give authors their half-finished work. People who make this statement tend to be folks who have never taken a real stab at writing since they were in high school. Some very few of the people who make this statement might have once thought about doing NaNoWriMo, but never did.

Many times people who make this statement are just expressing a day dream; sort of like people who say "I've always wanted to own a Ferrari." It's harmless in and of itself, unless you're saying it to someone who slaved away every waking moment for years and did everything short of committing murder to get said Ferrari in his or her garage. While the owner might nod and smile, the urge to reach out and slap the shit out of the dreamer is going to be a strong one.

Alternatively, people might express this desire as a way to try and show that they admire the author. These people understand at some level that writing a book, editing it, publishing it, and then marketing it is a difficult task. However, it's a much better idea to just say that. Don't confide your secret creativity fetish to us; we do this for a living.

Have You Tried Twitter?

They burn Kingston charcoal in the part of hell reserved for you.
Every author has heard this both from well-meaning friends and know-nothing strangers. All you have to do is speak the magic phrase, "I wish I could sell more books," and the mystical advice-genie comes shooting out of the bottle to grant you the secrets of instant wealth.

Wait... sorry, that's a typo. Either that or I'm rubbing the wrong genies. Or however that works.

Anyway, the point is that everyone seems to think they have the one method you haven't tried when it comes to getting big bucks on book sales. Maybe it's phoning the local newspaper, or posting on Facebook pages, or just starting a Twitter account. Whatever it is the idea is obviously so brilliant they're amazed you haven't thought of it.

Here's a hint folks; we have. Any author worth a roller ball signing pen will have carefully researched different marketing methods. We know which conventions have a good reputation (in our areas at least), and we know which forums allow self promotion. We have checked to see how much banner ads cost, and we've probably laid the ground work for starting an author blog (if we didn't already have one). No matter what idea it is you've had chances are good any author who's been in the game more than a year has already heard it, tried it, and possibly discarded it.

It's not that we aren't open to help; authors love to be given helpful suggestions and opportunities by people. Telling someone you have a friend in the entertainment section of the Times, or offering to hook us up with a cousin of yours who writes a popular book review blog is great. We would gladly accept that kind of help all the live-long day. When someone says "just get on social media site X" like that will turn us into an overnight sensation though it is not in the least helpful.

Before you speak ask the author what they've done to push the book so far. That way you're not going to make a suggestion the author has already grabbed hold of and is milking for all it's worth.

As always thanks for stopping in for this week's edition of The Literary Mercenary. If you'd like to get all of my updates then toss your name into the box on your top right, or follow me on Facebook and Tumblr. If you'd like to support me and my blog then leave a tip by clicking the "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid" donation button on the upper right, or stop by my Patreon page to become a patron today!